Writing Songs of Social Commentary

U2No matter what song genre you’re writing in, at some point you’re likely to find yourself wanting to express your thoughts about your generation, your community, society, or the state of the world in general. Given the unsettled times we’re living in, it’s not surprising that songwriters are turning toward their art to express feelings of solidarity, uncertainty, pride, indignation, or hope for the future. Whatever your thoughts or feelings are about the world, a song is a great way to express them.

What are songs of social commentary?

The words “social commentary” are not, in themselves, either positive or negative. These songs are a means of expressing an opinion, observation, or message, the way you see and feel about things, especially things you feel strongly about. For example, one person might look at a community and see the good that comes from a sense of belonging, while another might see a close-minded group banding together to keep outsiders at a distance. What’s your view? What’s your experience? Your observations may be lauded or they may be unpopular, but it’s still up to you – and no one else – to say what you want to say, to make your opinion heard.

Songs of social commentary are not limited to politics or protest. They can help us define a sense of purpose and place, identify with those who are like us and not like us, chastise and forgive, identify our strengths and our failings, and help us work our way through an ever-changing world.

Most importantly, a song of social commentary seeks to persuade, to convey the songwriter’s observations, beliefs, or experiences in a way that allows the listener to see and understand the world as the songwriter does. In doing so, the hope is that through songs we can understand each other a little better.

THEMES
This list includes a few of the most popular themes that come up in commentary songs. Each theme can be expressed in individual terms: its effect on one person or on the singer. Or painted with a broader brush: its effect on a whole society or the world. I’m sure you’ll think of more themes, so feel free to add your own, ones that have meaning and energy for you. Continue reading

Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You) – Kelly Clarkson

This is just the kind of song that every American Idol finalist and semi-finalist hungers for – and so do record labels and publishers. The melody has a huge range, which works well for singers with big voices, and there’s plenty of passion and excitement in the lyrics. If you’re interested in today’s melodic Pop/Rock genre, this is a song that’s worth studying. It offers a master class in contemporary melody and lyric craft.


Read the lyric here.
The Shortcut numbers refer to specific chapters in my books “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting” (“Hit”) and “Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV” (“Film/TV”).

Recorded by Kelly Clarkson
Writers: Jörgen Elofsson, Ali Tamposi, David Gamson, Greg Kurstin.

GENRE: Pop/Rock and Pop/Dance
This is a great Pop/Rock song that went to #1 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary (AC) chart. It also made it into the top ten on the Hot 100, Pop, and Dance Club charts. It has enough pumping beat to work in the Dance Clubs and enough lyric depth and craft to make it stands alone as a Pop/Rock song. It’s a great combination.

SONG STRUCTURE:
At 3:42, the song is on the long side, but once it gets rolling, there’s no stopping it! The basic song structure is:

VERSE / FULL PRE-CHORUS /  CHORUS
VERSE / HALF PRE-CHORUS / CHORUS
BRIDGE / CHORUS / REPEAT 2nd HALF OF CHORUS

The verses in this song are short, just four lines. This is a good thing because the chorus (beginning with the line “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”) is quite long. It’s double the length we would expect, repeating the phrase “What doesn’t kill you…” four times in each chorus – that’s fourteen times before the song is over! Continue reading

Dynamite – Taio Cruz

“Dynamite” is a Club Dance track that crossed over to the Pop/Dance charts big time! The song has a hot, hot HOT track. The song rides on top of a solid, rock-steady groove adding a vocal melody filled with catchy hooks and a fun lyric.


Recorded by Taio Cruz
Writers: Levin / McKee /Martin /Adetayo / Onile / Gottwald

Lyrics are available on the Internet.
Shortcut numbers refer to my books “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting” (“Hit”) and “Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV” (“Film/TV”). Both are available at Amazon.com.

GENRE
The Club Dance genre features irresistible, infectious grooves that get people out on the dance floor. Vocal melodies have plenty of rhythmic interest, using syncopation and repetition. Lyrics sometimes consist of no more than “let’s dance, get out on the floor “but for a song to crossover to the Pop charts, as this one certainly did, you’ll need to give the lyrics a little more personality and attitude.

In this genre, the lyrics and melody together are referred to as the “top-line.” The top-line is usually written after the instrumental track is roughed out or even completed. A good track producer will make sure that the top-line writer has a clear verse and chorus structure to work with. A few artists who are successful in this genre are Taio Cruz, Lady Gaga, Ellie Goulding, Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue, David Guetta, and Calvin Harris. Continue reading